What Star Wars Teaches Us
by Michelle Kinnucan
The fifth film of the popular Star Wars saga, Attack of the Clones—Episode II, opens in cinemas on May 16th. Writer-director-producer George Lucas’ earlier Star Wars films have been seen by millions of viewers around the globe. Star Wars: A New Hope—Episode IV, first released in 1977, garnered seven Academy Awards. Before the release of The Phantom Menace—Episode I, the films had earned around $5 billion in worldwide ticket, video and merchandise sales. According to a recent article in Newsweek, the 1999 Phantom Menace is the fourth highest-grossing film ever, earning almost $1 billion worldwide. The films and related merchandise have proven immensely popular with a much broader audience than Lucas originally envisioned.
Star Wars’ success undoubtedly reflects a deep cultural resonance with its story. In 1997, the Smithsonian Institution opened an exhibition that explained how Star Wars came "to represent one of the great myths of our time," as curator Mary Henderson put it. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, set a Smithsonian record for ticket sales and has been viewed by more than two million museum visitors. Ironically, after the success of The Empire Strikes Back—Episode V, in an interview by Kerry O’Quinn for Starlog magazine, Lucas said, "I don’t want to upset your readers too much, but it’s just a movie. It’s no big deal." But Lucas has apparently long been of more than one mind about the significance of Star Wars.
Later in the same interview, Lucas said, "This is the kind of movie we need. There needs to be a kind of film that expresses the mythological realities of life—the deeper psychological movements of the way we conduct our lives." Several Lucas interviews and articles mention his desire to craft a replacement for fairy tales and, in particular, Westerns. In a 1983 interview with Aljean Harmetz for American Film Lucas asserted "Film and [other] visual entertainment are a pervasively important part of our culture, an extremely significant influence on the way society operates … for better or worse the influence of the church, which used to be all powerful, has been usurped by film. Films and television tells us the way we conduct our lives, what is right and wrong."
It is, then, fair to ask: What does Star Wars teach us? It comes as no surprise that this question has been raised before and, like all cultural works, Star Wars is subject to multiple valid, if not equally persuasive, interpretations. In a piece on Lucas, Michael Pye and Linda Myles in their 1979 book The Movie Brats, wrote of A New Hope:
The iconography is bizarre. Darth Vader, the dastardly villain, is black. That is common in science fiction. … The closer to the color of a California WASP, the better the character; it is a fair rule of thumb. But Darth Vader’s forces are storm troopers, armored in white. … [W]hen our heroes take their just reward at the very end, there are images that parallel the finest documentary of Nazism, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. … French leftist critics thought the film was Fascist-oriented; Italian rightists thought it was clearly Communist-oriented.
In 1985 at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, Bill Moyers interviewed Campbell for what became a popular PBS series entitled Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth. In the companion book, Campbell is quoted as saying Lucas "has put the newest and most powerful spin" to the classic story of the hero; which is, "the message that technology is not going to save us. … We have to rely on our intuition, our true being." In Campbell’s view the evil Empire represented the "state as a machine" with the part-human, part-machine Darth Vader embodying the threat posed by modern society—"Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?"
Yet, a 1999 article on Salon.com by science fiction author David Brin characterized the saga as "an elitist, anti-democratic agenda" being peddled "under the guise of escapist fun". One of Brin’s strongest criticisms was that Star Wars betrays the progressive, egalitarian tradition of "genuine" science fiction precisely because it reiterates, in Brin’s view, pernicious mythological motifs that Campbell uncritically examined in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, which Lucas has cited as one source of inspiration for Star Wars.
In a 1999 Time interview with Bill Moyers, Lucas reiterated earlier remarks saying:
Star Wars is made up of many themes. It’s not just one little simple parable. One is our relationship to machines, which are fearful, but also benign. Then there is the lesson of friendship and symbiotic relationships, of your obligations to your fellow- man, to other people that are around you. This is a world where evil has run amuck. But you have control over your destiny, you have many paths to walk down, and you can choose which destiny is going to be yours.
No one can say definitively what Star Wars "really" means; even George Lucas can’t tell us that. There can be little doubt, though, that the Star Wars phenomenon is culturally relevant and worthy of analysis. In what follows I propose to offer another explanation for the saga’s cultural resonance and concomitant financial success.
In the first trilogy of Star Wars films evil is presented to us full-blown in the form of the Galactic Empire. According to the official web site, StarWars.com, it is "a tyrannical regime, presided over by a shadowy and detached despot steeped in the dark side of the Force." The despot is the Emperor Palpatine and throughout the first trilogy we have no idea what the Emperor’s motivations are other than his simple evilness. The only light the prequel, The Phantom Menace, sheds on this question is that we find out that Palpatine is motivated, at least in part, by revenge, for what real or imagined wrong we are not told.
As in the Westerns Lucas sought to supersede, the viewer is presented with an unambiguous moral dualism—good vs. evil—and given no context to understand the violent disposition of the enemy nor the reasons why most of his troops and other subjects follow him. As Mary Henderson put it, "There is no crossover between the two forces; when the Death Star is destroyed along with everyone on it, it is a clear-cut victory of good over irredeemable evil. There is no point in attempting to ‘save’ any of the Imperial troops." The Rebels/Cowboys are confronted with enemies that simply must be destroyed; no other option is seen as viable or even explored.
In the climactic battle of the saga, the Emperor is slain and the mortally wounded Darth Vader dies just before the Rebel Alliance triumphs in the destruction of the second Death Star. The violence is largely sanitized and uncannily bloodless; furthermore, we are spared seeing the consequences for ordinary citizens of large-scale warfare and the violent overthrow of the galactic civil authority. Thus, Lucas pits incomprehensible evil against manifest good in an inevitably violent, if hygienic, conflict where good triumphs.
Through this simple narrative device Lucas invokes perhaps the most powerful, yet least acknowledged mythological archetype in the saga. Theologian Walter Wink calls it the "Myth of Redemptive Violence … the real myth of the modern world." According to Wink, in the The Powers That Be, this myth:
… enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world. The belief that violence "saves" is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of the things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and often, the first resort in conflicts.
Wink traces the myth to the Babylonian story, the Enuma Elish, where the world is brought into being through the murder and dismemberment of Tiamat, the mother god. Creation is, thus, an act of violence; evil and violence are primordial facts of life. Wink locates the myth today at the heart of a "Domination System … characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations and the use of violence to maintain them all." The System is maintained and reinforced by a pecking order of violence that parallels the other oppressive relations established in it. Yet, oppression breeds resistance which when violent always strengthens the Domination System and reinforces the Myth of Redemptive Violence whether by its success or by its failure.
In a chapter entitled "Mythologies of War and Peace," Joseph Campbell tells us in Myths to Live By, that it is a "basic idea" in the mythologies of war "that the enemy is a monster and that in killing him one is protecting the only truly valuable order of human life … one’s own people." To Campbell, these are "affirmative" mythologies in which "war as life, and life as war" and the "monstrous precondition of all temporal life [i.e. killing] is affirmed with a will." Referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict he acknowledged the operation in modern society of these "war mythologies that … may yet explode our planet."
Campbell’s work, thus, lends some credence to Wink’s analysis. Yet, Campbell was frankly contemptuous of the "diametrically opposed" mythologies of peace." Commencing his case with a thin brief comprised of social Darwinism and other fallacies, Campbell further derided the mythologies of peace—which he found in strains of Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity—as being unnaturally ascetical in origin and, paradoxically, life-negating.
Given Campbell’s scorn of the mythologies of peace and, most importantly, his bias that communal violence is the natural, normal human condition, it is unsurprising that Campbell focused on the "Hero’s Journey" in analyzing Star Wars. Neither he nor Lucas apparently ever discussed the mythologies of war with reference to Star Wars although war figures prominently in the title and the story.
In closing, I turn to sociologist-historian James W. Gibson’s 1994 Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America. In his analysis, Star Wars constitutes merely a part of "a coherent mythical universe, formed by the repetition of key features in thousands of novels, magazines, films, and advertisements"—a cultural "New War" fought over issues of "power, sex, race, and alienation." He writes:
The vast proliferation of warrior fantasies represented an attempt to reaffirm the national identity. But it was also a larger volcanic upheaval of archaic myths, an outcropping whose entire structural formation plunges into deep historical, cultural, and psychological territories. These territories have kept us chained to war as a way of life; they have infused individual men, national political and military leaders, and society with a deep attraction to both imaginary and real violence. This terrain must be explored, mapped, and understood if it is ever to be transformed.
To fully understand what Star Wars teaches us we must examine something so obvious we are seldom aware of them—our assumptions about violence and war. The Star Wars films with their phenomenal and ongoing success are as good a place as any to begin the exploration Gibson suggests. Once we begin to understand the insidious role of the Myth of Redemptive Violence and war mythologies then perhaps we may reject them to reclaim ancient—and create new—mythologies of peace. R
Ann Arborite Michelle Kinnucan (firstname.lastname@example.org) has published in PS: Political Science and Politics, Commondreams.org, and The Record.
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